Since Recep Erdogan rose to power in Turkey 15 years ago, Greek-Turkish relations have presented a paradox. Erdogan initially styled himself a moderate democratic reformer, but over the years he has steadily increased his authoritarianism and anti-western posturing, especially since moving from prime minister to president in 2014. Yet relations between the countries remained on the stable and uneventful path charted since Greece accepted Turkey as an accession candidate to the European Union in 1999. Now, with Erdogan turning against Europe ahead of a referendum in April that may endow him with absolute power, there is rising uncertainty in Athens about whether this calm will last.
Relations between Greece and Turkey are complex. On the diplomatic field, the two countries are enmeshed in a web of complicated and interrelated disagreements. They disagree over sea and air borders and operational (military) control in the Aegean. Sovereignty over rocks and islets is disputed. In Cyprus, they support opposing sides of the divided island. But at the same time economic ties and human contacts between the nations have deepened substantially in the last two decades.
For years Greece was content that its bilateral relationship with Turkey had become embedded within the broader framework of EU-Turkey relations and the accession process Turkey had signed up to. In this way Greece had managed to turn its disputes with its neighbour into a matter of European concern, to be resolved through the benevolent impact of EU conditionality and enlargement process on the Turkish state. But the assumptions upon which this strategy was based are now crumbling.
First, Turkish accession is today an unrealistic prospect. Under the weight of crises and populism, the EU has little appetite for further enlargement. Second, and most importantly, the refugee crisis of 2015-16 changed the power relations between the EU and Turkey. Greece had assumed that Turkish demands in the Aegean and Cyprus would be reined in by the EU. But after the refugee crisis Turkey is dictating terms to the EU, controlling the flows of migrants and with it the fortunes of European politicians.
Thus the calm in Greek-Turkish relations in the last 18 months reflects substantially new dynamics. Seeing how its EU partners tacitly approved the closure of the “Balkan route” leading from the Aegean to central Europe, Greece knows that it is on its own over refugee flows to its shores. Given its economic situation, and the difficulties it already faces lodging and caring for 60,000 migrants stuck in its territory, this is a terrifying prospect.
Under the agreement the EU signed with Turkey in early 2016, Greek islands in the eastern Aegean have become spaces for the extra-territorial processing of asylum claims. The EU presses Greece not to move refugees inland, in case they try to continue their journey into Europe, while Turkey is slow to approve the readmission of migrants who are denied refugee status. As a result, tensions in Greek islands between locals and migrants flare up frequently.
Thus, in a roundabout way the old ambition of Greek foreign policy—to turn the Aegean into a “European” border that the EU would defend—is turned on its head. It is now Greece that accepts a status of hybrid operational control in the Aegean, out of fear that Erdogan will allow flows of migrants again and conscious that the EU will offer little assistance with the problem.
In this context, recent combative statements of the Greek defense minister against Turkey, reminiscent of the nationalist rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s, are perhaps more than diversionary tactics by a government in Athens embattled by austerity. Greece has finally begun to worry seriously about Erdogan’s relationship with the EU. Greek foreign policy experts are now warning that the Turkish president’s nationalistic rhetoric may presage military tensions with Greece.
But these concerns reflect how Greek foreign policy is caught in an outmoded mindset defined by two things: the promise of EU norms to domesticate Turkey, and the danger of direct military confrontation with Turkey. The chances of a direct confrontation remain minimal because Erdogan does not need military crises to increase his influence over Greece and Europe. He has already done so by patiently manipulating the EU as he consolidated his power, first as a reformer and then as an authoritarian.
Greece’s real worry should be that it lies on the frontline of Erdogan’s next stage of confrontation with the EU: a strategy of soft unconventional disruption of European politics punctuated by the weaponization of refugees, the politicization of the Turkish diaspora, and meddling in European elections (as happened recently in the Netherlands and Bulgaria). This disruption will become even more necessary for Erdogan after the referendum, when he will have to address difficult topics like a crumbling economy and the future of Syria. Erdogan will find polarization against the EU a helpful diversion in this challenging environment.
For Greece this means that its lofty foreign policy goals—securing peace in the Aegean, and creating a culture of communication and dialogue with Turkey—have become self-limiting. On the one hand they put Greece at odds with its EU partners, who are increasingly viewing Erdogan as an unpredictable authoritarian. On the other hand they underline Greece’s dependency on the process of Erdogan building his personal authoritarian regime. While it is difficult to see military tensions flaring up between the two countries anytime soon, the stoicism with which Greece has accepted that erosion of its strategic position is an acceptable tradeoff for calm over the Aegean is nothing short but impressive.